As the old expression goes “time is a great healer” and that is certainly the case when I decided to ride the Rás for the second consecutive year. The pain and stress of the previous year was fading, all that remained were fond memories of a fantastic week with some great people racing around Ireland in glorious sunshine.

Another incentive to ride again was the route announcement which centred around 3 hilly stages in Donegal. I’m no flyweight climber but like a challenge and a Rás through Donegal is definitely a box ticked.

And so began the process of putting down the winter miles which is made all the easier thinking of the hammering you will receive in the Rás should your preparations fall short. A core group of riders assembled at Joe Daly’s throughout the winter for the red spins many of which have since begun open racing and rising through the ranks already which is great to see.

All potential Rás riders were sentenced to 4 days hard racing in Kerry for Rás Mumhan over the Easter weekend in preparation. For those left wanting more punishment, a team headed north for the Tour of Ulster the following month. Both are excellent races and provide a taste of the level expected in the Rás.

For the second year running the race would begin in Dublin castle and prior to the race it was announced that An Post sponsorship would be discontinued after this edition which again added to the appeal of riding as An Post has a great identity with the race.

The summer bay boys from Australia returned and this time they brought some heavy artillery with them in the form of Cameron Meyer a world tour rider with an impressive Palmares.

 

 

Stage 1 - 146km Dublin – Longford

The team assembles at Dublin castle and we are introduced to the support team which was only finalised in the weeks leading up to the Rás. Ken O’Neil was on manager duties, Killian Doyle mechanic, Ronan Quigley soigneur and John Walsh physio/soigneur.

The teams are called to the stage for sign on, if crowd response decided GC then Orwell would be in yellow everyday, the support was amazing.

After a short wait in Dublin castle the race beings. The 1,200km journey started with a neutral 10km start out past Palmerstown and stopping near the exit for Liffey Valley shopping centre. As we pass the Guinness Storehouse the dual carriageway is closed and we receive a Garda escort. This really adds to the occasion as trapped motorists gridlocked on the other side of the road gaze on as the colourful moving circus passes by.

The opening exchanges down the N4 are similar to the opening scene from Private Ryan, riders darting off the front trying to make a name for themselves in the opening skirmishes.

The race winds its way through Leixlip village and rockets up a short 1 minute drag the far side of the village at 40kmh. We are only 6km into the race and for mere mortals you wonder to yourself “surely they can’t keep this up for 8 days”. Having experienced the race last year I already know the answer to that, I’m reminded of a scene from the Terminator where the film’s hero explains the Terminator to Sarah Connor “It absolutely will not stop, EVER!!”.

The speed is very high and the roads out of the city contain lots of roundabouts/street furniture, after a number of near misses I witness the first crash at a traffic calming island. As I pass I see Brian Mcardle picking himself off the ground, it’s a callous unforgiving sport where six months hard training can be wiped in the opening 10km.

There are multiple crashes throughout the first few hours and it becomes a game to find a safe haven in the bunch. The first and only KOH on the stage is Loughcrew at 70km. The break is gone and I am well positioned coming into the climb which is taken at a hard but steady pace, I can hear some Pro’s casually chatting away beside me as I look down and see my HR is 177 (max is 183) argh!

At 90km I found myself up towards the front of the bunch and decide I’m going to take this opportunity to ride the front whilst the top riders are hatching a plan for the next fiendish attack. With a break of 5 or 6 up the road, I take to the front and for a minute or two. I’m on the front of the Rás peloton on stage 1, great buzz.

With 25km remaining, the speed really ramped up again as the peloton chases down the break. I hung in with the main bunch to the finish line. Whilst we didn’t get the same time as the winner (16 secs back) that’s one of my main goals accomplished, finish with the leaders on a stage.

 

Stage 2 – 143km Longford – Newport

Stage two was a flat day with only one notable bump around 40km into the race. It was on this small bump combined with strong crosswinds where some cracks started to appear in the peloton. By the top of the drag echelons had formed and there were splits from the front to the back. This was the first visible sign of the pros starting to flex their muscles and put some distance into the county riders. Some of the smaller splits joined together and by the time things settled, we were third group on the road. In this scenario you find shelter and hope there are strong riders to chase down the front of the race, Belgium national team saved our bacon on this occasion.

Further into the race there was another long stretch of exposed road with strong crosswinds, cue lineouts! In a crosswind scenario the stronger riders can put weaker riders under pressure as there is less opportunity for drafting and forces the weaker rider to ride at same effort as those doing the damage at the front. Its moments like this where riders are clinging on for dear life and shoved into the gutter. Riders also tend to get very vocal in these situations and a chorus of “hold the f**king wheel” rings out. In this instance my position was poor and I was in the last third of the peloton and there was shouting and lots of argy bargy going on, just before the attacking ended I got my first glimpse of the cavalcade with riders already out the back and dropped.

Heading into Claremorris pace is sky high with roundabouts and other street furniture to negotiate. It’s a familiar scenario where school kids/locals are out cheering and supporting the race; this seems to encourage the front of the race to ride harder. On a drag the far end of town splits are occurring in line outs and I find myself the wrong side with 100km on the clock. After a failed attempt to get back via the cavalcade I settle into a group of 15 plus riders to ride out the remaining 40km.

Coming into the Westport the lead car brings us the wrong way and a Mayo rider jams on his brakes in front in me, I crash straight into the back of the rider and over the crossbars. When I get going again the front wheel is damaged and I have some spokes dangling. A quick conversation with the lead car confirms he has no spares so I chase back into the group with my dodgy wheel and finish in Newport where the support crew begins the process of getting us recovered for the next stage.

 

 

Stage 3 – 149km Newport – Bundoran

Another flat day with a hill early on at 20km. Once things have settled down a bit after neutral section and the opening skirmishes, I find myself well positioned and riding in the first 50, speeds are high again but it feels comfortable. When the initial break gets away at 15km riders at the front block the narrow road preventing any riders from the back moving up, I’m second row and thinking “why can’t I be up here everyday”. The climb is 3.6km at over 2%, the top guys ride it like its flat at 41kmh+ to give some indication as the speeds they climb. Over the top and the line outs continue on the descent and subsequent flats.

I’m on a good day and continue to ride in the first 50. 70km into the race and the average speed is still 48kmh there is a crunch from the crankset and I look down to see the chain as jumped off the chainring and managed to wrap itself around the crank, noo!!!! I pull in and wait for the team car to arrive, out jumps Killian but unable to unravel the chain a decision is made to use the spare bike. The race/cavalcade is well gone at this stage as I start moving down the road but the saddle is too high so I pull in again to adjust. After a 15km chase through small villages and twisty roads in behind the team car I eventually catch sight of the cavalcade and desperately make my way back in the bunch, Ken/Killian have played a blinder and the relief is immense. Pacing a rider back to a peloton at 50kmh is not an easy task over lumpy terrain and requires excellent judgement from the car driver.

Once back to the safety of the bunch the pace is steady for the next 20km. Approaching Sligo, a classic sequence of line outs ensues on wide dual carriageways, the race resembles a spit fighter air show as riders try escape the bunch in every direction and bid for glory. When you can lift your head from the wheel in front it’s a great spectacle, this continues for 10-15km until the elastic snaps and the pros get up the road. We roll back into Bundoran where the winner has clocked an average speed of 48kmph, surfs up!

 

Stage 4 – 151km Bundoran – Buncrana

The race enters Donegal and the first of the hilly stages with arguably the Queen stage first on the menu. It’s lumpy from the off and the first of the challenges is Barnesmore Gap which is taken at a fast but steady pace, no problems to report here.

After 55km there is a draggy main road for 10km with constant attacking and riders are now starting to feel the pinch. We survive this and descend into Letterkenny at 90kmh.

The next 40km section is relatively flat before the hard stuff begins at 110km. Slavery Hill is the first challenge in a sequence of three gruelling climbs. If Slavery Hill hasn’t beaten your legs into submission it is quickly followed by Old Mountain and finally the killer blow from Pinch Mountain.

 

 

All these climb names conjure up image of pain, suffering and punishment, could they not just call them something like Marshmallow Mountain, Primrose Point or something less intimidating? My own personal sentence is complete between Slavery Hill and Pinch Mountain when my legs go kaboom and I can no longer hold onto the lead group. My father and Bernard English have made the long journey to Donegal to support the team and are road side to provide bottles and support for the team.

The final killer blow is Mamore Gap which comes late in the day at 135km. This is an iconic Irish climb which is present in many a Rás the last of which was 2012. I’d never ridden the climb but seen many of the pictures with hundreds of spectators. As I approach the final 500 meters of the climb I catch a glimpse of a huge crowd assembled towards the summit. I’m riding well and just behind Steven and Ronan on the climb, some unusual noises are coming from the rear end of the bike and it sounds very much like the cassette might be loose but I continue grinding on the steepest section of the slopes. A short while later there is a crunching noise and I stop pedalling immediately and dismount, the rear derailleur has mashed into the rear wheel, FFS!!  A quick look up the climb and it would appear I am not the only one having mechanical issues, the race ambulance has grind to a halt before the summit and the spectators are in behind pushing. They eventually get the ambulance going again to what I think were chants of olé olé olé, only in Ireland!

I am now roadside with no bike and contemplate doing a Froome and jogging up the final slopes. After a wait of about 5-7 mins the Navan Team car arrives on the scene and provides one of their spare bikes, it’s an old classic Colnago from the 80’s I suspect which gets numerous admiring comments from spectators and fellow riders. I remount and continue up through the crowds. Roadside some lads are chugging on bottles of beer and I think to myself “I’m supposed to be on holidays, I should be having lunchtime beers also”.  My father and Bernard are near the summit providing support; Bernard is taking the opportunity to work on his 200 metre 20% gradient dash as he helps tired riders over the top.

On the descent I take it handy enough given I am on a foreign bike and it’s also SRAM shifting which I have never used. After the descent there is another climb which I need to take in the 39-11 until I figure out how the shifting works, FFS!! I make the finish in a small group and for the second stage running my own bike hasn’t made it to the finish. At stage end my father and Bernard whisk away my bike to perform surgery, some hours later it’s off life-support and returns in tip top shape.

 

Jamie on the SRAM equipped Colnago

 

Stage 5 – 180km Buncrana – Dungloe

This was the longest stage in this years race at 180km. Whilst the route is absent of any major climbs it's very up and down and temperatures are due to hit high 20’s today. It is agreed amongst the team that Letterkenny at 40km and the drags out the other side of town are key which we all survive.

The next set of KOH climbs are at the 70km mark and when reviewing these on the route map it doesn’t really do them justice as they appear pretty innocuous. They are far from straightforward and coupled with the high speed into the climbs the race fractures into many different groups on the road the other side. Once over the climbs I am left in limbo land, solo, no getting back to the lead group and need to wait on riders to come up from behind.

I find a group and then begin the long journey back to Dungloe. Heat is becoming a major factor now as riders moan about sore feet as they expand in their cycling shoes. Blisters are starting to form on the palms of my hands presumably from the sweat and all the wrestling with the handlebars.

Tan lines topped up we arrive back in Dungloe where Ronan is getting stitched up by the race doctor, it wouldn’t be a Rás without Ronan getting in the wars! Ice creams are consumed on the way back to the digs, quick shower and we are all down to the local swimming spot to dip the legs.

 

 

Stage 6 – 132km Dungloe – Donegal

Stage six is the last of the hilly stages in Donegal, at 132km it’s the shortest of the race but contains 6 KOMs including the dreaded category 1 climb of Glengesh. Before we can even consider Glengesh there is a Cat 3 climb at 15km which is dangerous.

To our relief a small break goes early, JLT take to the front and the climb is taken at an easy pace. It feels absolutely blissful to take the climb at tempo pace and perhaps all these young pros are starting to feel the pinch and can no longer ride full gas all day every day. I glide down the descent on the other side lulled into a false sense of security. At the bottom position is poor, there is a 90 degree right hander and we are straight into strong crosswinds.

Looking down a long straight road I can see the ceasefire lasted all of five minutes. On the left there is a lake with no hedges to shelter from the wind. The ensuing lineout surely wins the award for lineout of the week. Three separate echelons are forming at the front whilst the backmarkers are desperately fighting in the gutter on the right to hold the wheels. The road is only newly resurfaced and there is drop of a few inches to a grassy verge on the right so good bike handling skills required and the trust of the riders around you. Splits are happening under the pressure but I know I don’t have the legs to bridge on a behalf of a group so I stay where I am. I see McNally react and bridge one of the group’s back to a bigger group, huge power required there.

The line outs and hard riding continues for around 10km and its beginning to take its toll on tired riders. Splits are now happening, before the Glenties and climb of Glengesh, I find myself off the lead group with 15 other riders. After Glengesh the group builds to 30+ riders and includes an American Pro who was 2nd over Mamore on stage four which provides an indication of just how unpredictable the Rás is.

For the remainder of the stage riders exchange turns on the front taking the wind safe in the knowledge the worst of the race is over.

 

 

Stage 7 – 170km Donegal - Ardee

Arriving to the race start HQ for stage seven reminds us all how good we have had it for the past week. It’s pouring rain with the forecast predicting rain for the entire stage.

Riders are warming up on turbo trainers in the hall as other riders contemplate the value in a wet weather warm-up. With no sign of the rain abating we head out on the road to stretch the legs. With fatigue levels high, Brian McNally and I manage to lose our bearings and get lost. With the assistance of another team car make it to the start line with minutes to spare.

When assessing a route map I always deem anything which climbs over 100 metres difficult at this level, that’s exactly what we have pretty much straight from the gun. It’s raced full gas into and over the climb with the race splitting almost in half on the other side. Some pros and top Irish riders have missed the split and chase the lead group in earnest, no chance of getting back on now! Within 8km, 70+ riders are out of contention, only in the Rás.

160km remain in driving rain trying to beat the time cut. Given the group is so big communication is not great and at the 100km point, we hear a shout from the roadside “25 mins down”. We are averaging over 42kmph at this point so the lead group must be really hot to put 25 mins into us. The time limit is 20% and with a flat 170km stage a quick calculation says we are probably looking at 35 minutes outside the winner’s time and probably 10 minutes to play with. Panic sets into the group and riders start riding hard. An American Pro asks why my team mate is drilling it on the front proclaiming they will never eliminate half the race, good old McNally! I later find out he was dropped and a DNF.

In the final kms there are some pretty tough line outs, line outs in the groupetto! The winner’s average is 47+kmh, we finish well within the time cut and turns out we were getting incorrect information from the side of the road.

 

Stage 8 – 130km Ardee – Skerries

Through the worst of it is over and the seaside town of Skerries awaits us. There are a few revisions to last year’s route to include the ball breaking climbs of Bewellstown and Snowtown before we hit the Skerries circuits and the black hills.

As per previous stages the first 60km is taken at 47kmh before we reach the climb of Bewellstown. I’ve got that feeling in my gut that if the pressure is really put down now I am in trouble. The front of the race rips it up the climb harder than they managed on that first hill out of Leixlip on the first day. Over the top I am losing contact with the main group and find myself in limbo land again solo. On the climb of Snowtown the Orwell team car arrives with Ken and Killian offering encouragement and an assortment of energy products.

A group forms on the next section of road and a few smiles are exchanged as we approach the finishing circuits through Skerries.

As we ride through the town huge crowds are roadside in glorious sunshine enjoying the buzz. I hear a few muffled shouts of Orwell as we blast through the town.

 

 

The Aftermath

After the circus that is the Rás I steadied myself for work the next day. Logged on and turned my Out-Off-Office notification off and trawled through e-mails. Spreadsheets, Microsoft Project and Visio documents were never exciting but post Rás these things are soul destroying. The Rás means something to all competitors and will have a different impact on most riders, a hungry young pro, a good national level rider, an older guy chasing a dream. For an amateur it’s the toughest of challenges and will test every fibre in your body.

There is a mental toll to pay and the weeks following I found concentration levels low with simple tasks becoming an ordeal. Mood levels are a little low and it’s a confused state of trying to decide whether I am suffering from major fatigue or missing the daily Rás routine. The entry fee should definitely include some post traumatic therapy sessions.

The support team were instrumental in getting the five riders to Skerries. All gave up a week’s annual leave to support us which was much appreciated.

John Walsh, a Carlow man, and two time Rás finisher in the 80’s was drafted in to provide rubs and swanny duties. My first post stage encounter with John was him rubbing down my face with baby wipes. Initially this felt a little weird and embarrassing but by stage seven I was demanding to know where John was with the baby wipes. A great man to have around a race and can strum a mean tune on a guitar.

Ronan Quigley travelled from the UK to provide swanny duties for the week. Ronan was the master navigator and logistics expert. After every stage he was on hand to provide some sambos/recovery drinks and later that evening looked after our kit. When we were well behaved he even bought us ice creams.

Ken and Killian are club members and regular racers themselves. First timers in the role of team manager/mechanic and both excelled. It’s a stressful affair in the team car and given Brian Mc’s incident on stage one there was no time for an induction course.

Joe Daly’s provided nutrition and bikes spares for the week which was much appreciated and essential.

Then there are my fellow riders who have full time jobs, some with children and self trained. Over the course of the week all had issues of their own during the races and showed huge amounts of strength, determination and toughness to make the finish on each day. Ken commented that we were the oldest team in the race but you would never think it with some of the performances the lads put down, major respect.

 

Would I go back again? It’s an immense week and the ultimate adventure holiday, one more shot to complete the hat-trick would be great.

 

Read More: Jamie Busher: Man of the Rás 2016 | Stephen Barry: Man of the Rás 2017

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